Let’s face it. Nowadays we live in a world where everything is “all or nothing.” Folks either Love something, or they Hate it. It’s One Star, or it’s Five Stars; The Best!, or the WORST!
As a society, we’ve become extremists, in that way. It’s why things are so politically divided down “Party Lines,” why so many arguments devolve into Us vs Them partisanship, and even why disagreements over something as trivial as the quality of a movie often lead to genuine cruelty.
It’s because of this trend that it sometimes feels like society is losing its middle ground. And that, my friends, actually is tragic, any way you slice it. Because often times when there’s a debate, the actual truth or solution lies somewhere in the middle. Maybe it’s closer to one side, but it typically involves a willingness to see what the other side is saying and to challenge your own thoughts, and then to do something few seem willing to do anymore: Budge.
It’s sad that budging, compromising, and being diplomatic have somehow become viewed as signs of weakness in this age of “I’m totally right. You’re totally wrong. Now go feel badly.“
I don’t have the answers for how to solve this problem in the big picture (other than trying every day to Be the change I want to see in the world), but I run a site that caters to passionate fandoms, and so today I’d like to ask you to come join me in the middle ground of a major conflict within geek circles.
I hope you’ll accept my invitation.
“How Heart, Humor, Heroics, and Snyder Are The Key To DC’s Cinematic Future”
By Mario-Francisco Robles (@I_AM_MFR)
Look at us. We’ve reached a point in our shared popular culture where a film about Aquaman is currently the biggest thing in the world, having made $1 billion and being at the center of so many conversations happening at digital water coolers everywhere you look. If you would’ve told people this would happen, even a few years ago, they might’ve laughed at you.
Even to many diehard DC fans, Aquaman was always some sort of a redheaded stepchild; That dorky character from with the orange shirt who talks to fish. No thanks. Gimme Batman! (Amirite?)
But James Wan did it. He made Aquaman into a bankable, likable, top tier superhero. And he did so by taking cues from two creators who most see as being completely at-odds with one another: Geoff Johns and Zack Snyder.
I know the very idea of this may shake you to your core, if you’re a DC fan who’s gotten caught up in all of the debates about how the DCEU/DCU/Worlds of DC “should” be. But hear me out.
For some folks who are in favor of films like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, they see Snyder as someone who should be kept as far away as possible from these characters. That’s informed by Snyder’s tendency to get very serious, subversive, grandiose, metaphorical, and deconstructive with these properties and characters.
On the flip side, people who want DC to look and feel like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice think of Johns as everything that’s wrong with popular cinema. That perception comes Johns steering DC on film away from Snyder’s aesthetic after BvS, insisting that the new DC would be filled with heart, humor, and heroics, i.e. The Three H’s.
(And for some, it also comes from misdirected anger at Johns over what happened with Justice League– but that’s a column for another time.)
And yet, if you look at the DC films that have been the most successful, it’s the ones that borrow from both Snyder’s and Johns’ sensibilities.
Before we go any further, let’s all agree on what my definition of success is, just so we’re on the same page.
The way I look at it, “success” doesn’t mean one single thing. It’s more a combination of factors. Because a movie can make a billion bucks and still be a train wreck just as easily as it could get the greatest reviews ever and end up only making ten bucks at the box office. Box office numbers don’t say much about quality, just as quality doesn’t necessarily equate to great business.
So when I say that a film is “successful,” I look at three key factors:
- Did fans like it? (Metrics: CinemaScore, PostTrak)
- Did critics like it (Metrics: Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes)
- Did it perform well at the box office? (And by “well” I mean, did it turn a healthy profit relative to its budget and inspire confidence in the studio to produce more like it?)
By those standards, DC’s biggest successes of this modern era have been Wonder Woman and Aquaman (with Man of Steel and Suicide Squad each getting an honorable mention because getting two out of three of the above factors ain’t bad).
When we look at those two films, and at the balance of styles that their directors Patty Jenkins and James Wan displayed, there’s an interesting shared through line. They’re visually opulent, telling tales of heroes steeped in grand, mythic elements, yet they’re also filled with a nice blend of humor, lightheartedness, and a general sense of adventure.
Jenkins and Wan seemed to look at the philosophies of both Snyder and Johns, combined it with their own sensibilities, and made films that brought out the best of both creators’ visions for DC.
No matter what you think of Snyder, few will deny that his films aren’t visually arresting, extremely well cast, and gigantic in scope. So both Jenkins and Wan were given great building blocks for their Wonder Woman and Aquaman films, respectively. And you can see in both films how they kept a lot of Snyder’s operatic visual splendor- The meticulously crafted costumes, the slo-mo accentuation in the action sequences, and that general air of “This is epic.”
They also both dare to take their central heroes very seriously. So even though there’s a sense of lightness and fun throughout, it’s never at the expense of the hero, and it doesn’t undercut the drama.
Both filmmakers also worked quite closely with Geoff Johns on their respective films. While he wasn’t asked to participate in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, or Suicide Squad, he was deployed to assist Jenkins and Wan on their films.
For Wonder Woman, Johns did uncredited work on the script, and was a regular presence within the production. That film would go on to exemplify his mantra of “Heart, Humor, and Heroics.”
That formula clicked with fans, as Wonder Woman would go on to be a huge success. Audiences loved it, critics adored it, and the $120-$150M budgeted film turned a phenomenal profit while on its way to a $821.8M worldwide haul- with most of that coming domestically, which is where the studio gets the biggest percentage of the returns. It was a smash.
And yet, while it tonally adopted Johns’ philosophies, it didn’t forget about Snyder’s overall style and generally epic feel. Jenkins tweaked it to suit her vision (primarily in the color department), but you can see plenty of visual symmetry between Wonder Woman and Snyder’s DC films.
A very winning combination.
Yet it came out at a time when many wanted to turn the page on the Snyder Era, so few wanted to give him credit for laying down the groundwork for what Jenkins made. Without that foundation, and that influence on the way the film was approached, it’s a safe bet the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as successful.
Then there’s Aquaman. Another great example of balancing styles.
The film’s a worldwide smash, with audiences loving it for the globetrotting adventure it is. It manages to be lighthearted and funny without being flippant. It also takes itself seriously and wants you to believe in its fantastical world. It’s primarily a joy ride, but it’s also got some thoughtful subtext about the world at large (you can read more on that in my review for the film HERE). And it’s just as big on heart as it is on spectacle.
It’s another example of a film that takes the mythic grandiosity of a Snyder film and imbues it with the wide-eyed optimism of a Johns comic book. And the latter comparison makes a ton of sense when you realize Johns was very hands-on with Aquaman– probably even more so than with Wonder Woman. He’s credited as a writer and executive producer on it; The story takes some major cues from his Aquaman books; And he’s been fighting to get people to love this character for years.
And that’s a big part of why it’s one of the few films in history to enter the Billion Dollar Club, and one of the biggest overall successes of the comic book movie genre ever- by being that love child and finding that balance between Snyder and Johns, the two creators Warner Bros. has entrusted their DC universe to in recent years.
There’s a reason every DC film has made a ton of money, even the ones that are divisive. And I think it has to do with that “seriousness” that so many people seem to want to do away with.
That’s why, while Marvel is viewed by many as the Gold Standard when it comes to comic book movies, the numbers paint a more nuanced picture.
Through six films, the DCU has earned $4.7 billion, with each film earning an average of $798.5 million each. And this is despite all but two of them getting predominantly negative reviews. Even Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, which were mired by terrible reviews, negative buzz, and tepid-to-okay marks from fans, made more than half of the MCU’s movies. Can you imagine how they might’ve done without the baggage?
I bring that up, not to besmirch Marvel, or to cheerlead for DC, because remember, box office doesn’t equate to quality, but to point out that there’s something about DC’s formula that really resonates with fans around the world.
Sure, you could argue that it has a lot to do with the “household name” factor for characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash. But then that gets flipped on its head when you realize that a character that’s always been viewed (and treated) like a B or C-list hero, Aquaman, just did better than all of them.
So you can’t quite peg DC’s prowess at the box office on that. It has to be something about the way these films look and feel, and the way they’re marketed.
I took this little detour to make this point: The fact that Snyder anchored this new DC Universe with films that were serious, grandiose, and mythic in scope is why people will go see them even if the reviews are terrible. Audiences want to believe in these far-flung scenarios, and they want to be transported.
The success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and the fact that they’re seen by many as way more enjoyable than Snyder’s films (as evidenced by their CinemaScores and legs at the box office), proves that Johns’ Three H’s are an absolute must.
And that’s why the key to DC’s success will be to continue to find that balance. Without it, you either end up with one extreme (Batman v Superman) or another (Ant-Man).
Therefore the answer lies somewhere in…the middle.
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